A few months back I was doing some shopping at Sam’s Club. I decided to browse through the books and was delighted to find The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien for an insanely affordable price. I realized I’d never read the books, despite having seen the Peter Jackson directed films many times. I became curious as to how the books and movies compare to one another. In what ways did the movies succeed, and what ways did they fail? Are the books worth reading, or are the films enough? As someone who went to school for both film and writing, I felt that I was at least somewhat qualified to give an opinion on the matter, and so I set out on my journey into Middle-earth.
At the time of writing this, I have only read the first book of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, and have read a few chapters of the second book, which I will get to in a separate blog post. Although The Hobbit precedes The Fellowship of the Ring, I have not read The Hobbit yet. Fortunately, The Fellowship of the Ring opens with a recap of The Hobbit so that readers are aware of important details they may need to know moving forward. It’s also important for me to note that I watched the Peter Jackson film of the same name, based on Tolkien’s work, very shortly after I finished reading the book in order to refresh my memory on the film adaptation. I did NOT watch the extended version of the film, so my opinions are based purely on the theatrical release. I am not aware of scenes that may be in the extended edition that do not appear in the theatrical version. Lastly, this post will contain spoilers for the book and film. With that said, let’s get into this epic adventure.
Density and lore
Right off the bat at the beginning of the book, the reader is bombarded by mountains of lore. An entire history of Middle-earth’s most important people as well as dense descriptions of locations and key events are piled on at the onset. This can be overwhelming to casual readers, but is great for those who want to experience a fully fleshed out fictional world complete with its own languages and customs. For me, the paragraphs upon paragraphs of names and places that I knew I’d never remember were a bit much, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book. Tolkien lets you know what you really need to focus on, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to understand everything instantly. For first-time readers of the book, just focus on the main aspects of the story. It’s okay to forget names and places because the ones that actually matter for the plot will be mentioned repeatedly throughout.
It probably goes without saying that there’s a lot of lore that didn’t make it into the film, and for good reason: there’s a lot of it. The reason films almost never follow books word-for-word is because there’s just too much to squeeze into three hours of screen time. There’s so many names, places, and backgrounds that just aren’t covered in the Peter Jackson film, but I think that’s perfectly fine. Films can easily get bogged down by stuff like that, especially since they need to be more snappy in their delivery than books do. Films tend to focus only on events that move the story forward, and everything else is brushed under the rug. I feel that Peter Jackson’s adaption did a good job in choosing which scenes and details mattered the most in advancing the plot.
Besides lore, Tolkien also seemed to love describing scenery, to the point where it dragged on and became boring at times. And although I’m impressed with how many ways Tolkien was able to describe a forest, path, or stream, I’m not sure I needed detailed descriptions down to every last mushroom and twig. Those who enjoy slow-paced world building that paints an exact image of what the author had in mind for their story will enjoy Tolkien’s attention to detail, but some people might feel it unnecessary. Fortunately, Tolkien’s writing acted as the perfect blueprint to follow for filmmakers as they designed their sets and chose their film locations. As far as how Peter Jackson’s film looked, there were few liberties taken, and I think that’s exactly how it should’ve been handled. Sticking to the source material was the best decision, even if it meant analyzing every intricate passage of text.
Characters and casting
Because I’d already seen the films, I definitely pictured the cast of the films in my head as the characters in the book, even though book descriptions did differ slightly. For the most part though, the films were very well cast. Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee were especially spot on, and I can’t picture anyone else in those roles. Sir Ian McKellen nailed Gandalf’s wisdom and kindness, as well as his power and fury, making him just as balanced and intriguing of a character on the big screen as he is in writing. In my opinion, Gandalf is by far the best character in the first book, and probably in the movie as well. His wit and humor in the book is unmatched, and I legitimately laughed out loud at many of his quips. And the famous scene where Gandalf battles the Balrog is not just an iconic moment in the film, but in the book as well. Tolkien’s writing had me on the edge of my seat.
As for Samwise Gamgee, every time Sam had dialogue in the book I could hear it in Sean Astin’s voice. Sam is written to have a distinct way a speaking that’s different from the other hobbits, but Sean Astin’s delivery of this way of speaking really captured what Tolkien was aiming for with the character. Sam is incredibly loyal to his friend and master, Frodo, and that loyalty is well established in the book and through Sean Astin’s superb acting as well.
When it came to the cast of characters as a whole, I was surprised at how funny a lot of the characters were in the book. I wasn’t expecting the level of humor the book contained, as I had imagined the books being more serious than the films. That is not at all the case! Frodo in particular is incredibly sassy in the book, and nearly every character displays their own special brand of humor throughout. I’m thrilled that the film succeeded in capturing the whimsy and charm of the characters as much as it did, even if book Frodo and film Frodo didn’t feel quite the same to me. The book was so cleverly written, and while Peter Jackson’s film did not contain nearly the same amount of raw, unfiltered dialogue as the book, the film still did an excellent job in capturing each character’s personality.
Too many songs!
Now let’s get down to some of the major differences between the book and film. If you’ve never read The Fellowship of the Ring, you might be surprised to know that it contains many poems, chants, and songs, mostly from the hobbits but also from men and elves as well. Hobbits especially love to sing, which you don’t see much of in the films. They’ll often be described by Tolkien as walking along a path, tramping through the woods, or wading across a stream and then suddenly just start singing some old folk song or other, which of course usually contains some lore that I’m sure Lord of the Rings superfans eat up. I’ll be honest though, after about five songs/poems I found myself thinking: Really? Another one? The songs are nice for learning more about hobbit stories and traditions, but otherwise I could do without them. And by the way, it’s apparently common for readers to skip over the songs completely due to how unnecessary they are to the plot as a whole, so go ahead and skip them if they don’t interest you.
The songs are almost entirely absent from Peter Jackson’s film, but I don’t have any complaints about that. Frankly, it would’ve quickly turned into a musical if they tried to stuff all the songs into it. If you’re really curious about the songs of the hobbits and other races in Middle-earth, the book can be easily obtained for your reading pleasure, but I can confidently say that the film absolutely did not need to include them. I like that their love for singing and poetry is more implied and mentioned in passing in the film, rather than having the hobbits bust out randomly in song every two seconds. That would’ve gotten old very fast.
Where is Tom Bombadil?
Hey movie buffs, do you remember Tom Bombadil? No? Well, that’s because he didn’t make it into the movie. He may not be the first character omitted from a film adaption of a book, but I will say I would’ve liked to see how he would’ve been cast and portrayed in the film. To give you an idea of what you moviegoers are missing, I once read a forum where one commenter suggested that Jack Black would be the perfect Tom Bombadil, and I couldn’t agree more. Imagine, if you will, Jack Black as an eccentric, jolly, sing-songing old man prancing about the woods throughout the ages in mysterious immortality with an unexpected ability to handle the One Ring without any temptation or effect from it whatsoever. I bet you didn’t know such a person existed in Tolkien’s universe. He was a character that the hobbits encountered on their way to Bree. And in fact, much of the journey to Bree was cut from the film, not just Tom Bombadil.
Although I’m disappointed that Peter Jackson and crew did not include the colorful Tom Bombadil in their film adaptation, who was perhaps the most entertaining and whimsical character of the entire book, I can’t say I blame them. The film was already quite long without Tom Bombadil’s scenes, and if we’re being really honest, Tom wasn’t important to the plot at all. However, it’s not too late for Hollywood to make a Tom Bombadil spin-off, right? He’s simply too lovable of a character to be ignored by filmmakers for this long. They should get on that.
What surprised me the most when it came down to the differences between the book and film were the endings. In the book, Frodo sneaks away and sets out on his journey alone after having been confronted by Boromir about the ring, and then Sam catches up to him and joins him, but then that’s it…that’s where the book ends. Notice anything missing? In the film, the plot is taken one step further with the death of Boromir. It turns out that in the books the death of Boromir occurs at the beginning of The Two Towers, and NOT at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. I found this to be quite odd, but it seemed like a smart move by the film writers to include this important scene in the first film. In fact, I believe the book should’ve ended this way as well. I don’t mean to be too critical of a classic book, but it does seem strange to begin the second book with the death of a major character.
Which is better: book or film?
When it comes right down to it, the book and film versions of The Fellowship of the Ring are both fantastic, although quite different experiences. I do not feel that the book is a good choice for casual readers, but is great for avid readers who consume a lot of literature and can handle long descriptions and dense lore. If you’re a more casual reader and still want to give the book a try though, I’d suggest an audiobook version or reading the book out loud with a family member (I read the book out loud with my husband, which I think made it easier to focus and not zone out). The film is also a very good choice though. As far as how close Peter Jackson’s film was to Tolkien’s original story, I’d say the film was roughly 80% accurate. Sure, some things were left out or slightly changed for the sake of brevity, but the heart of the story, the personalities of the characters, and the stunning visuals were directly taken from Tolkien’s text and replicated to the best of their abilities.
Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring? Have you seen the film? Perhaps you’ve experienced both. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.
I am currently reading The Two Towers, which means there will be a part two to this blog post within the coming weeks or months. For the first book, I was pleased with the film adaptation, but we’ll see if that carries into the second film as well.